Thursday, November 29, 2012

Challenging the Long Night of Russian Authoritarianism

This article is dedicated to the memory of my beloved teacher, Russian democratic politician Galina Starovoitova.  Galina was a close friend of mine.  We freely debated many complex political issues, including the illegal Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1994, her desire to seek Western funding for Russian political parties, and the need for a social safety net to protect poor Russians who were negatively affected by the transition to capitalism.  She told me about her Orthodox Jewish former mother-in-law and her affection for Israel and the Jews.  We also discussed my career plans and her difficult struggle to balance work and family.  I was devastated by the news that Putin murdered her brazenly in broad daylight in her apartment in November, 1998.   I also read the inspiring Russian-language memorial book about Galina that was published in 2003.  This wonderful work contained the experiences of her followers and documented her ongoing political impact in Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Lithuania, and Israel.  

When Russia launched the first post-Communist invasion of Chechnya in December, 1994, I knew without a doubt that this tragic event marked the beginning of the end for Russian democracy.  As it turned out, Russian democracy limped along unsuccessfully for another 5  years until a drunken President Yeltsin decided to turn the keys to the kingdom over to his KGB/FSB buddy – the infamous Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.  In my opinion, one major reason for the total collapse of Russia’s longest experiment with democracy was that many Russian democratic elite politicians failed to address the economic concerns of the common person.  Russian democratic elites were largely indifferent toward the financial struggles of starving elderly pensioners because they did not think the everyday problems of average citizens were their issues.  So while Russian democrats were busily debating irrelevant legal points, tens of millions of Russians watched their savings evaporate and saw the prices of basic foodstuffs skyrocket overnight. 

Since the 1990’s, Russian politics has continued an even further slide away from even the most basic principles of human decency.  For instance, Russian democrats protested heavily against the first post-Communist invasion of Chechnya and managed to end the Russian occupation of Chechnya at least temporarily for a few years from 1996 to 1999.  This war cost 100,000 Chechen lives and represented a return of Stalin’s genocidal aggression against Chechnya in 1944.  But it was ended for a few short years.

I believe that the bombings of the apartment blocks in 1999 which killed nearly 300 Russian civilians in Moscow, Volgodonsk, and Buynaksk were an FSB conspiracy to justify a prior Russian plan to re-invade Chechnya.   My reason is that several prominent Russian democrats and advocates of this theory, such as the journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the FSB dissident Alexander Litvinenko, and State Duma member Yuri Shchekochikhin, were brutally murdered by Putin.  I also hold Putin and the FSB responsible for the murders of Galina Starovoitova, lawyer Stanslav Markelov, journalist and human rights activist Natalia Estemirova, Russian-American journalist Paul Klebnikov, liberal politician Yuri Yushenkov, economist Andrei Kozlov, and ethnologist Nikolai Girenko. In addition I blame Putin and the FSB for the attempted assassinations of Ukrainian democratic politician Viktor Yushchenko and KGB dissident Oleg Gordievsky.  Putin is responsible for the prior imprisonment of FSB dissident Mikhail Trepashkin and the ongoing illegal captivity of Mikhail Khordokovsky. These atrocities are documented here.
In addition, I am alarmed to read that Putin’s assassins were likely responsible for the attacks on two of his Western critics, Paul Joyal and David McGrory.  Mr. Joyal was injured, and Mr. McGrory was murdered.  Putin is acting brazenly in murdering his Western opponents on Western soil with impunity because he knows that his brutality will go unchallenged both in the West and in Russia.  In addition, Western scholars in Russian studies now have two important reasons for remaining silent about Putin’s crimes against humanity: the desire to retain access to Russia for their research and fear for their personal safety if they dare to publicly challenge Putin’s regime. 

Taking advantage of the catastrophic Chechen decision to impose shariah law upon their people and other missteps of the Chechen leadership, Putin re-invaded Chechnya in 1999. His ostensible reason for invading Chechnya was to battle “terrorists", but flattening Grozny and murdering old men, pregnant women, and infants are not typical tactics for fighting terrorism.  Putin’s main targets seemed to be defenseless Chechen civilians and hapless Russian conscripts who were beaten to death by their drunken commanders. 

During the second post-Communist Russian invasion of Chechnya, Russian democrats hesitated to unequivocally challenge Putin.  And this time, the Russian occupation of Chechnya has lasted longer and cost more suffering for Chechnya and Russia alike.  I personally think that Chechnya has the right to independence from Russian control and occupation if the Chechen people freely decide upon such a destiny.  Tragically, the Chechen people are no longer in control over their own destiny, as they are at the tender mercies of Putin and the FSB. 

Despite his endless catalogue of atrocities, Putin remains unpopular in Russia.  According to the Public Opinion Foundation, in 2003 his popularity fell to 49%.  In August, 2011, according to the well-respected  Russian polling firm Levada, 54% of Russians disapproved of his regime, and 64% opposed his United Russia party. .  Thus, Putin remains in power through a combination of brazenly stuffing the ballot box and systematically imprisoning and murdering his political opponents.
Unfortunately, the 2003 polls also revealed that the Russian people consider Russian democratic politicians to be irrelevant.  Grigory Yavlinsky, co-founder of Democratic Russia party alongside Galina Starovoitova, gathered just 2% support.  And Union of Right Forces Founder Boris Nemtsov obtained just 1%.  Thus, Russian democrats are hampered by both Putin’s murderous brutality against them and by their apparent lack of popular following.

Perhaps this situation helps explain the decision of some liberal Russian democrats such as the world chess champion Garry Kasparov to ally with Russian Communists, nationalists, and fascists who share nothing in common with them ideologically.  In response to the fraudulent parliamentary “elections” of December, 2011, the political opposition launched a united campaign against Putin.   These protests represented a united effort of Putin’s political opponents, ranging from liberal democrats to Communists and Russian nationalists.   Russian nationalist blogger and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has been a major organizer in this anti-Putin protest campaign.  The speakers in the rally of December 24, 2011, included democratic politicians Nemtsov, Yavlinsky, and Mikhail Kasyanov; Left Front organizer Sergei Udaltsov, Navalny, author Boris Akunin; and political activists Ilya Yashin and Gary Kasparov.

On December 5, 2011, 8,000 people protested against Putin.  On December 10, 2011, Russian opposition forces estimated that 60,000 people demonstrated against Putin in Moscow. Russian nationalist blogger Reports from the BBC and London Telegraph indicated that 10,000 protestors gathered in St. Petersburg.  In addition, large-scale protests erupted in several major regions, including 3,000 people in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, 4,000 in Yekaterinberg, and 1,000 in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East.  The protests built momentum for a national movement against Putin which expanded beyond  Moscow and St. Petersburg to include significant numbers of demonstrators in three major regional cities.

Several additional large-scale rallies took place in Moscow on December 24, 2011, and in early 2012. The number of protestors on December 24, 2011, was at least tens of thousands but is hotly disputed and difficulty to verify.  Police said the crowd was 30,000 while opposition activists estimated the crowd size at 120,000. 

Another opposition rally occurred in Moscow on February 4, 2012.  Once again, the crowd size is hard to verify.  Police say 33,000 people participants, while the opposition claimed 160,000 protestors.  On March 5, 2012, in response to Putin’s ‘re-election’, opposition activists say that 20,000 people gathered in protest in Moscow’s iconic Pushkin Square.
On the eve of Putin’s inauguration, thousands of people protested against him in Moscow.  Police counted just 8,000 protestors. The New York Times estimated the crowd size at 20,000. suggested the figure of 60,000, while opposition politician Ilya Ponomarov cited 100,000.

Unfortunately, unlike other peaceful protests, this gathering was marred by violence.  The reasons for the violence are not clear.  The real question in my mind is whether the violence was primarily provoked by the Putin regime or caused by a small number of provocateurs among the opposition crowd.  The Putin regime seemed to have orchestrated Denial of Service attacks on several liberal media sites such as Echo Moscow radio and Kommersant daily newspaper in advance.  In addition, the Putin regime was clearly prepared for confrontation, having organized a large-scale official response that included several groups of riot police, conscripts, soldiers, and water cannons.  In its editorial of May 7, 2012, said the Putin regime helped provoke the violence by restricting the opposition crowd to an unreasonably small area In addition, Based upon my analysis of the Putin regime’s methodology and the limited available evidence, I hold the Putin regime primarily responsible for the violence. 

Another peaceful opposition rally occurred on June 12, 2012 in Moscow.  Police said the crowd was 15,000 while opposition activists estimated 50,000 participants.
Despite the short-term gains associated with a temporary political unity of Putin’s opponents, the long-term consequences of this strategy are potentially dangerous for Russia’s future.  I support the peaceful movement to remove Putin, Medvedev, and the FSB from power.  But I am concerned that the ideologies of Russian Communists, nationalists, and fascists can undermine the development of Russian democracy.   Russian nationalist participants carried a huge banner entitled “We’ll take back Russia for the Russians.”   I can assume these demonstrators are anti-Semitic and support ongoing Russian aggression against Muslims in Chechnya and Daghestan.

Thus, I believe that Russian liberals must focus upon spreading their democratic message and strengthening their following among the Russian people.  Russian liberals must clearly articulate their democratic principles and their rejection of extremist ideologies from both the right and left.  They must denounce the spread of anti-Muslim racism among the Russian people which is a direct consequence of the continuous FSB war against the Muslims of the North Caucasus.  The goal of this effort must be two-fold: to remove the Putin / Medvedev FSB regime and to replace it with a liberal democratic government that ends the Russian war in the North Caucasus and equally respects the human rights of all Russian citizens, regardless of their religion or ethnic origin. 

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